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The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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December 2005 Volume 3 (6)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Focus on: Communities of Practice

Fostering a professional community

ELISA is a successful professional community in Edinburgh, but where does it go next? Wendy Ball suggests that the next stage of development for such groups involves defining your purpose and continuing to question motives.

Edinburgh libraries and information services have a long history of co-operation and collaboration. However, the publication of the Cultural Policy for the City Of Edinburgh in 1998 revealed the need and the desire for a more formal structure to this co-operation. In response to this, the Edinburgh Libraries Strategy was published and launched in December 2003. A ‘cornerstone’ of the strategy was the establishment of ELISA (Edinburgh Libraries & Information Services Agency). As stated in the final document: “Many of the actions in this Strategy are not fully achievable without the establishment of ELISA, which will be a delivery mechanism for the Strategy.” Chris Pinder described more fully the genesis of ELISA in an earlier issue of Information Scotland.

Since the publication of the Strategy, ELISA has made significant strides, including the collaborative efforts of Edinburgh libraries to fund a part-time development officer post. ELISA has emerged as a forum where libraries and information services can listen to each other, exchange ideas and experience, work with each other when practicable, and offer a united voice outside the sector.

It operates through Working Groups that focus on areas of concern to librarians and identify practical collaborative projects with concrete outcomes of benefit to the target user groups. Current projects include a one-stop portal for digital literary collections, an Edinburgh Library Passport and a support network for Chartership. All this activity is linked through email lists, a website, a newsletter, and personal contacts.

The motivations that drive people to contribute to and actively participate in ELISA appear to stem from two sources. There are those that come from what might be called the ‘professional head’ where strategies, budgets, and policies are the driving forces. The professional head sees successful strategies needing investments, political agendas needing to be addressed, and the sound economics for collaborative and partnership working. Then there are those motives that come from what can be called the ‘professional body’, the collective activities of individual staff who are motivated by professional and personal circumstance. The professional body responds enthusiastically to working together to meet common objectives, and to creating an environment conducive to ideas and innovation.

With ELISA, therefore, Edinburgh libraries and information services have established a robust mechanism to link many of their efforts to create access to a unified information resource for all the user groups in the city.

For ELISA to develop successfully, there are a number of practical issues – after all as with most such agencies both funds and time are limited. These issues fall into four main areas.

>>Practical benefits: What can ELISA do for its members?
>>Funding: Is funding necessary? How can development time, marketing, advocacy and networking activities be paid for? What other resources are available?
>>The communication network: How can the network be as effective and efficient as possible? How can the network be mainly self-maintaining without disintegrating.
>>Common agendas: How can common agendas be identified when various tensions exist between, for example, national and local remits, competitors for the same funding, institutional and individual objectives?

In order to develop further, a priority for ELISA is that it considers what kind of organisation it wants to be – is it a ‘network’, a ‘community of practice’, or a ‘professional community’? There are numerous models for co-operative activities in Scotland and further afield, but there is an important distinction to be drawn between funded collaborative programmes and voluntary co-operative activities. In funded programmes such as Inspire (Information Sharing Partners in Resources for Education), the motives are chiefly driven by the professional head, this creates different dynamics to those in co-operative activities that are based on voluntary participation mainly driven by the professional body. ELISA is unusual in being both. It is funded by the professional head but the rationale for its existence is being sought in the professional body. People become involved with ELISA on a voluntary basis.

Professional networks are a commonly found mechanism for co-operation and exchange of ideas, strategies and expertise. A key feature of networks is that they are a response to a practical common need. ELISA’s origins are rooted in the Edinburgh Libraries Strategy – therefore it was not initially a response to a practical need. The term ‘Communities of Practice’. was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990s in their work examining learning as social participation. It describes the development of informal groupings that have a definite role in organisational functions. Hildreth & Kimble present a variety of interpretations on how Communities of Practice can function in knowledge management. CILIP defines them as: “...a group of people who share the same profession, situation or vocation. These communities facilitate professional exchange, allowing members to establish a bond of common experience or challenges.”

An essential difference between professional networks and Communities of Practice is the focus of the activity. A network will focus on the flow of information and expertise, whereas, a Community of Practice will focus on the cohesion of the group, the common ground, and the participation. The National Electronic Library for Health describes the main characteristics of their Communities of Practice as being voluntary, not driven together for a specific purpose, nor to achieve tangible results, and their existence is defined by the group members. This description seems to be valid for many Communities of Practice.

The diversity of institutions and agencies involved with ELISA do not make the establishment of common ground straightforward. There are approximately 144 libraries and information services in the Edinburgh Libraries Guide . They range from voluntary information services with entirely electronic resources, to the National Library of Scotland. They include all kinds of services from across the sector and across domains. The people in the photographs featured with this article are all those who have contributed to the ELISA newsletter TACIT and give an indication as to the diverse character of the potential ELISA community.

In recent years the concept of a professional community as a model of organisation has been developed further. In 2004, the Government Information and Communication Service initiated a programme called ‘Improving Professional Capacity’. The aim of the programme was to “provide a practical way forward to identify and establish as wider, fully functioning, professional community of government communicators.” There are now a series of best practice case studies demonstrating the benefits of organising professional activity in this way.

So what does a professional community do? It networks, it shares best practice but it mainly provides a place to belong. The common ground is important, as are the individuals within a community as people adopt different roles that allow that community to function effectively. Also communities need investment in order to flourish. This does not necessarily mean money, or even physical resources: in the context of a professional community investment of time and ideas are probably far more valuable.

Once ELISA is considered in the light of a professional community, it is easier to understand what aspects can be developed. It is also easier to see its place in the context of other professional networks and communities of practice, and how it relates to the national organisations such as CILIPS and CILIP.

Creating a new community, or rather building on an existing one, is an exciting prospect for all involved. Certain key features of such a community have to be nurtured. Potential community members need to feel that there is something real to which they can belong. A community memory comes into being and this is a conduit for knowledge assets. The knowledge assets belonging to the information providers of Edinburgh is a resource of great intrinsic value for the city.

As custodians of the information providing services, to take nothing for granted and to keep questioning motives is surely a good thing to do – particularly for the user groups. These are the issues that ELISA has to face as it forges on in its next phase of development. IS

Wendy Ball is ELISA Development Officer, t: 0131 242 8106


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Information Scotland Vol. 3 (6) December 2005

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Last updated: 01-Feb-2006